Few fines or closures for COVID violations
Whether they’re trying to keep everyone healthy, they’re self-appointed cops, or they’re registering their displeasure with what they view as heavy-handed restrictions, people have filed more than 43,000 complaints with the state about alleged violations of COVID protocols from March through July.
State agency inspectors have been trying to make a dent in the list, making phone calls and some 250 in-person spot checks per day, Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) Director of Communications Tim Church said. The state is required to look into every complaint.
Despite the volume of complaints, there have been few fines or closures. In fact, most businesses comply once they understand the expectations, Church said.
A few dozen complaints named businesses in the Methow Valley. Some people cited specific companies, while others alleged that virtually every business in Winthrop or Twisp was ignoring the rules. The existence of a complaint does not indicate a violation of the state’s COVID regulations.
The complaint records were obtained by the Methow Valley News through a public-records request.
The complaints follow the trajectory of the pandemic and the evolving restrictions. March and April drew complaints about businesses that were open when the complainant believed they weren’t essential. Some attacked unfairness. Why was a construction company from out of the area working when local builders weren’t?
Hotels and campgrounds were common targets, with complainants questioning whether all guests were truly traveling on essential business. One person contended that Sun Mountain Lodge was promoting non-essential travel merely by being open.
In the spring, complaints were also filed against several sporting goods stores in Winthrop by people who believed they didn’t meet the definition of “essential.” These stores had obtained a variance because they sell survival gear and shoes, Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau said at the time.
Early in the pandemic, Ranzau was bombarded with regular complaints about perceived violations. But she’s hardly received any complaints in the past month. “Everyone seems to be doing a really good job. Everyone is requiring masks. I think it shows in our [infection] numbers,” Ranzau said.
Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody also hasn’t heard any complaints recently. Early on, she got complaints from community members about businesses, and from businesses about how they were being treated by patrons.
But people are learning what we need to do to live with this virus, Ing-Moody said. “The community has come to terms with how we can function collectively and in respect of each other,” she said.
The opening of the North Cascades Highway in May spurred a flurry of complaints about Winthrop businesses that didn’t appear to be taking precautions. Some people were worried that tourists would unleash a COVID outbreak in the valley.
“There appears to be widespread complacency, even some disdain, for the guidelines and requirements…. It’s tourist season now, and some of us fear a spike in cases. Please help!” said one.
“This has got to stop it is going to affect all us local folks and school reopening. A few $10k fines would stop this dead,” said another.
Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe was cited repeatedly. “Small patio packed shoulder to shoulder…. No masks worn by patrons or employees…. Think of it as a pool stuffed with people and that gives you the picture,” is how one complainant described Sheri’s in May.
In June, complaints focused on violations of the mask requirement for employees and customers. Some singled out businesses, including Hank’s Harvest Foods, Ulrich’s Valley Pharmacy and the Winthrop Store, while others said no stores in Winthrop or Twisp were following the rules.
Individuals also appear to have used the complaint system as a forum for grievances or to make a political statement.
In May, complaints (in all caps) were filed against Gov. Jay Inslee “FOR BEING A LYING TYRANT, USING THIS PLANDEMIC [sic] AS AN EXCUSE TO DESTROY WASHINGTON STATE…!!”
Others submitted sham complaints, sending investigators on a wild-goose chase. Complaints called out violations at the Twisp River Pub, the Antlers Saloon, and Blackbirds Café, businesses that have been closed for years. Those complaints all included some variation on “People sitting down! Not social distancing! No masks anywhere! Someone had a fully semi-automatic ghost gun on their hip!”
L&I verifies each complaint and makes sure the business owner is aware of the rules and expectations, Church said. After a phone contact, an inspector conducts a spot check to see if the business is in compliance. Inspectors also drop in on random businesses as part of overall monitoring.
The investigations are divvied up by agency. The Liquor and Cannabis Board handles bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, while the Department of Licensing oversees hair salons, Church said. “We’re incredibly busy — people are working on it in all regions,” he said.
If a business insists that it can do what it wants, L&I sends information about the requirements and explains that the business must close if it won’t comply, Church said.
L&I is still averaging hundreds of complaints every day about masks. If nine out of 10 customers are wearing a mask when an inspector shows up, that’s acceptable — but if it’s only one in 10, the agency will take action, Church said.
Despite the volume of complaints, it’s rare for the state to fine or shut down a business. “We do our very best to let businesses know the expectations and give an opportunity for businesses to meet the expectations,” Church said.
Overall, the agency has had good interactions, and many businesses comply after learning about the complaints, Church said. Enforcement action — which could be a $10,000 fine or outright closure — comes only when a business blatantly refuses to comply, he said.